A geisha is a Japanese hostess who entertains men through performing arts and conversation (and, by definition, not a prostitute; those were the similarly-clad oiran). The word was borrowed from Japanese in 1887, where the most literal meaning is perhaps "artisan" (or "art person" if you want to get super technical). This is because geisha is a fusion of gei, meaning "art" or "technique", and sha, meaning "person". Both of these terms come from Middle Chinese, which is not too strange- there's a whole kanji alphabet for that very purpose. Gei comes from a word sounding like ngiei, also meaning "art" or "craft" (earlier on, we can trace this to words meaning "to plant") and sha derives from something sounding more like cha, which served as a suffix relating to people, such as -er or -ist today. I wish I could go more in depth but I'm absolutely terrible at East Asian etymologies. They get very messy. Geisha as a word peaked in usage in the 1960s but has recently been on the rise again.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a senior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.